Sharing the Tet Temple Pilgrimage Experience in Ninh Binh, Vietnam
Goat. It's what's for dinner in Ninh Binh. Pint-sized goats are everywhere -- shuffling through roadside garbage bins, clambering up steep rocky slopes in little family units, and roasting on a spit. It's the regional specialty, so Caffrey gave it go - thịt dê, stir fried with lemon grass and chili, covered in sesame seeds. He said it tasted like goat cheese. I'll take his word for it.
We visited Ninh Binh during the Tet lunar new year holiday, when thousands of high-spirited Vietnamese families travel to the countryside for a temple pilgrimage. Being a part of this local tradition was a unique experience - chaotic, crowded, but (in hindsight) substantially more meaningful because we were privy to the Vietnamese people's earnest prayers for happiness, love, health and prosperity in the new year. The scenery was certainly spectacular, as well!
The temples in Tam Coc, Ninh Binh province, have exceptional characteristics, which is why they are a popular pilgrimage destination. Bai Dinh, for example, is the largest and most impressive Buddhist temple complex in Vietnam. We have visited a lot of Buddhist temples throughout Asia and Bai Dinh is remarkable for both its scale and its detail, such as the diversity of buddhas with different hand mudras and the hall of 500 monks, each with a unique face and posture. At night, the entire 50,000 acre complex is attractively illuminated and can be seen for miles.
And then there are the temples accessible only by boats paddled across rice field waterways and through low-ceilinged caverns by experienced local rowers. There's also Bich Dong temple, with hidden buddhas tucked into dark recesses of its posterior cave. And the mountaintop temples requiring a bit of committed stair stepping -- 500 steps for selfies at the pagoda and dragon at Mua Cave. All of these temples were packed with devout Vietnamese paying their respects to ancestors, heroes, former rulers, and local gods...and perhaps a little day drunk...
I do not deal well with crowds and it is always a challenge for me to find a place of mental calm when faced with a mass of people, especially when it is not expected (like a mob of Tet-celebrating pilgrims). In Tam Coc, my sanctuary was a five mile temple-to-temple running route, void of traffic, noise, and relentless hawking. It made the crucial difference between hissing and purrrrrring.